Yesterday, Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, visited Sweden and Finland to sign mutual defence agreements[↗] with both countries. This geopolitical development is significant: the United Kingdom (UK) is not party to any mutual defence agreements outside of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), whereas both of these Nordic countries have historically eschewed alliance commitments. Indeed, formal military alliances[↗] are rare in international politics, with these arrangements confined to those that involve the United States or, to a much lesser extent, Russia or the People’s Republic of China.
To some degree, these agreements are ‘stop gap’ measures intended to buttress the security of Northern Europe as Finland and Sweden attempt to join NATO. Finland announced[↗] it would apply for NATO membership the day after Johnson visited Helsinki, while Sweden is expected to make a similar announcement in the coming weeks. With these defence agreements, Britain has promised to come to both nations’ aid if they request assistance. In Jonhson’s words[↗]: ‘If Sweden were attacked and looked to us for help and support, then we would provide it.’ In effect, the UK has extended its nuclear umbrella over them and plans to send forces to both countries in order to underscore its commitment. The British Army already deployed a group of Challenger II main battle tanks to Finland for military exercises[↗] earlier in May.
The text[↗] of the ‘UK-Swedish Political Declaration of Solidarity’, as the first bilateral agreement is called, declares that ‘[s]hould either country suffer a disaster or attack, the United Kingdom and Sweden will, upon request from the affected country assist each other in a variety of ways, which may include military means.’ The United Kingdom-Finland statement[↗] is much shorter but contains an identically worded pledge (with the exception that Sweden is replaced with Finland). Although agreements of this kind tend to be vague as to which adversary poses the external threat, these bilateral declarations are explicit in identifying the main geopolitical challenge as Russia.
Despite not being legally binding commitments under international law, the geostrategic position of Sweden and Finland means it is hard to imagine that Britain would dishonour its pledges to either nation in the event of an emergency. The UK has long recognised that any hostile power dominant in the Baltic-Nordic area would soon threaten British interests; it is for this reason that Britain has intervened decisively time and time again to reduce budding overlords, such as Napoleonic France, Wilhelmian and Nazi Germany, and now Putinist Russia.
As such, these assurances show the continued centrality of the Euro-Atlantic theatre[↗] to British geostrategic thinking, even if the Indo-Pacific is growing in importance. They animate the Integrated Review[↗] with its prescription for a ‘Global Britain’ which seeks to proactively reshape the international order with new bilateral and plurilateral initiatives, as well as reinforced multilateral structures, such as NATO, to deter or thwart large authoritarian powers from revisionist geostrategic agendas.
After all, Britain has spent the last decade or so deepening its relations with all Nordic countries, culminating in the Joint Expeditionary Force[↗] (JEF) that was established in 2014 under the tenure of Sir Michael Fallon, then Secretary of State for Defence. This plurilateral initiative has brought together Nordic and Baltic countries so as to cultivate naval interoperability and pool together resources for potential expeditionary use. It has also assumed a political dimension; at the last meeting of the group, a ‘Leaders’ Statement[↗]’ was issued. Though formally outside of NATO, Sweden and Finland have participated in the JEF since 2017. As such, the two new bilateral assurances represent the next logical step by removing a key tension that had until now characterised the UK’s defence cooperation with the two countries: the absence of a defence pledge despite growing security cooperation between them.
The declarations also underscore the significance of Britain for the defence of Europe despite its departure from the European Union (EU). There is an irony here. Finland and Sweden may very well be seeking these bilateral agreements with the UK because they fear a gap in security coverage between the time it takes to submit an application to join NATO and to become official members. Yet, as members of the EU, these two Nordic countries presumably had coverage already through Article 42.7[↗] of the Treaty of Lisbon – the EU’s mutual defence clause – and the fact that the EU has one nuclear-armed power in France. The decision to seek formal assurances is a subtle hint that Article 42.7 is seen as inadequate for guaranteeing territorial defence against staunchly revanchist adversaries.
The EU’s Article 42.7 may very well be more robust than NATO’s Article 5, but Article 5 – no matter its ambiguity – is ultimately underpinned by British and American nuclear power, actualised through their forward-deployed conventional forces across the northern and eastern flanks of the alliance. Despite its leadership of a new battlegroup[↗] in Romania, France is not positioned along NATO’s eastern flank to the same extent[↗] as Britain. In addition, the relative French hesitancy to provide military support[↗] for Ukraine as well as the repeated calls of Emmanuel Macron, President of France, for dialogue with Russia[↗] has generated doubt about France’s reliability and willingness to confront[↗] Russia. Briefly put, allied to existing cooperation through the JEF, the UK has been much more forceful in its support for Ukraine and opposition to Russia so as to raise its value to Finland and Sweden.
Insofar as they effectively close off the remaining non-NATO countries in Northern Europe to Russian aggression, the British assurances to Finland and Sweden are important because they dampen the risk of conflict while both join NATO. In addition, the British support enables the Euro-Atlantic democracies to double down on assisting Ukraine, as well as on their efforts in the more exposed and geopolitically central Black Sea region. Equally, as Ukraine is unlikely to join NATO for many years, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the President of Ukraine, has requested security guarantees[↗] from key partners – the UK chief among them – in the interim. In this sense, the new treaties with Finland and Sweden may offer a blueprint for Ukraine in the future, once it has resisted, or even defeated, with British and allied support, Russia’s renewed offensive.
What a difference a few years makes. Not long ago, Britain was in turmoil as it withdrew from the EU. Today, British foreign policy is in the ascendancy: not only has the UK stood firmly against Russia, using its convening and aligning power to form a coalition in support of Ukraine, but it has also started to re-engineer the defence of the continent. Perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, Europe – and the Nordic as well as the Baltic and Black sea regions especially – have become ‘test tubes’ for the application of the Integrated Review. And perhaps somewhat ironically, ‘Global Britain’ has become Europe’s ‘security activist[↗]’.
Dr Alexander Lanoszka is an Ernest Bevin Associate Fellow in Euro-Atlantic Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He is also an Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Waterloo. James Rogers is Co-founder and Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy.
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